Out of Africa: A Young Black Convert Drops in on Father George Stallings

“I gotta teach now,” the preacher said to the crowd in the filled-to-capacity high school auditorium as he grabbed hold of a microphone and started prancing around the stage. “But seeeee, those of us who have a Eurocentric mind,” he said, stretching his vowel sounds to their limits, with a special sarcastic emphasis on Eurocentric, “know that in our thinking we are very di-chot-o-mous. It’s an either/or proposition, rather than both/and. The Euro-centric mind says we gotta either be Rooooooman Catholic, or noooooo Catholic.”

“Amen,” a black woman sitting behind me, fanning herself, yelled.

The preacher continued working the crowd into a religious fervor: “The Euro-centric mind says you have to do it our way, or nooooooo waaaaaaaay! The Euro-centric mind says you either have to do it in our church, or noooooooo church. The Euro-centric mind says you either gotta know that because we said it, it’s right, or because you don’t listen to us, then you are wrooooonng! But the Afro-centric mind does not say that! The Afro-centric mind is not dichotomous, it’s holistic!”

The crowd leapt to its feet, yelling “Amen” and “Alleluia,” while a piano and African drums added to the cacophonous tumult.

“We do not make separations! We do not make distinctions! We do not say either/ooooooor! We say both/and! So what we’re saying to the Roman Catholic Church is that you can have your church, and we can have our church! You can do it your way, and we can do it our way! We don’t separate the sacred from the secular, the good from the bad, we see it all together.”

The ravings of a heretical rebel priest? Or of a man besieged and battered by a church that is unresponsive to his needs and the needs of all black Catholics? The words above are from a recent homily given by

Reverend George Augustus Stallings, a 41-year-old black priest who recently established his own church, Imani (“Faith”) Temple, despite the threat and the subsequent use of suspension by the archbishop of the Washington, D.C. archdiocese, James Cardinal Hickey. Stallings charges that racism permeates the Roman Catholic Church, and that his Imani Temple, an “African-American Catholic Congregation” as he calls it, is the remedy for that supposedly pervasive prejudice.

It seems that many Washington area blacks are in agreement with him. Services he has conducted at the Howard University Law School chapel and Suitland High School in Maryland have been packed. Many parishioners from the parish Stallings served at for 12 years, St. Teresa of Avila, came to see Stallings strut, preen, and preach the Word of God in a way not unlike black Protestant ministers. But it has only been a few weeks since the first Imani Temple service, and, judging from my observations, it seems that more people were at that service for the spectacle than for any substance. Further, Stallings’ sermon was just an overworked and overused collection of TV soundbites and press-ready rhetoric. And dangerous rhetoric at that.

Quest for Power?

It is no wonder that the dust Stallings has been kicking up about racism has already begun to clear. First, his charges of racism and the establishment of his own congregation over the objections of his superiors drew sharp criticism from his peers. Jacqueline Wilson, the Washington archdiocese’s director for black Catholics and a former friend of Stallings, told the Washington Post that Stallings’ crusade “has nothing to do with race. George has an inordinate desire to be in power.”

“All of us deplore racism wherever it occurs, especially in the Catholic Church, and we must constantly work to eradicate it,” Auxiliary Bishop Leonard Oliver, a black bishop of Washington, said in the New York Times. But, he went on to say, “one man is presuming that his own personal pursuit is the cause of the entire African-American Catholic community. It is presumptuous to believe God will bless the efforts of a private individual who sets himself up against the Catholic Church, especially when his words and actions divide rather than unite Christ’s Body.”

Further, the nation’s 13 black bishops have jointly condemned Stallings’ actions. Thus, Stallings has no backing from those who would support him if his allegations were true. His only constituency is made up of the aforementioned St. Teresa parishioners and non-Catholics, including Ali Muhammad, the “national spokesman for Islam,” according to Stallings, who is a high official in Chicago Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan’s organization.

Another sign of Imani Temple’s apparent shallowness is Stallings himself. Many questions have been raised about Stallings’ lavish lifestyle.

“We become so absorbed in the things of this world that we forget that there is a kingdom of which we are in pursuit,” he told the congregation. “That’s why some folks would rather have houses and land, why some people choose silver and gold, why they treasure all these transitory, these tangible, these fading things rather than seeking to save their souls.”

Stallings himself, though, is not wanting in the way of “tangible, fading things.” He lives in a three-story, six-bedroom, refurbished Victorian house in Anacostia with expensive furniture, Jacuzzi, and a Japanese garden. He pays for his high life with speaking fees for private appearances; he has found denouncing racism a profitable enterprise.

During the first two services at Imani Temple, Stallings announced that he wanted to build a 6,000-to 8,000-seat church; recently, he has been extending that to a plan to buy a 45,000-person capacity building for $1 million. “When you have God, you think big,” he said. Stallings, to me, seemed to be spreading the “prosperity gospel” that is usually associated with the Jimmy Swaggarts and the Father Divines of the world.

Stallings not only has a hunger for the finer things in life, but also for the spotlight. Stallings’ words and picture have been on the pages of publications from the Washington Times to the New York Times. He has been traveling the country giving interviews. It is possible that the item at the top of Stallings’ agenda may not be reducing racism, but rather promoting Stallings. (Cardinal Hickey suggested this in a column for the Washington Post.)

Do-It-Yourself Liturgy

The absence of a meaningful liturgy also con-tributes to the lack of substance at Imani Temple. As a black Protestant, I left the Pentecostal faith of my parents because of the lack of spirituality; this lack is very evident at the Imani Temple. Emotionalism and religious fervor are fine, but they can’t survive without spiritual substance. When I was at Imani, it was hard not to pat my foot to the stirring gospel music, it was a struggle for me not to raise and wave my hands in the air, for music and emotion are part of my religious heritage. But after the service, there was nothing left.

I overheard conversations of people who had been in the service with me. None were about the homily or any other part of the service; many were about the cramped conditions of the auditorium. The permanence of ritual and tradition was taken out of Stallings’ Mass and replaced with his version of what an “African-American” Mass might be like.

Gospel readings were replaced by selections from Howard Thurman, a black religious leader. There was no genuflecting or any reverence for the sacred Body of Christ. There were hardly any references to the Blessed Virgin or the saints, but there was an invocation of the “spirits of ancestors.” The yelling, clapping, screaming, and loud music were not conducive to the contemplation necessary to reflect on the meaning of the Mass. Fleeting joy replaced reverence, empty emotions superseded the majesty of the Eucharist at Imani Temple.

It was as if, like the sweltering heat outside the high school, a blasting, drying spiritual wind had parched the very center of my soul; I was spiritually thirsty. I looked around the auditorium and there was no sincerity, no seriousness about the Mass. It was all just a “good time,” like a wrestling match or “Monday Night Football.”

Sometimes I tire of the seemingly stuffy Mass at many “white” churches, and I think many of those who were at the Imani Temple service I attended had felt the same way sometimes. But I would take a boring “white” Mass any day before I would subject myself again to the spiritual wasteland which is Imani Temple. Black Catholics may like a bit more liveliness in the Mass, but they still want the sacrament.

“Breaking from the unity of the Church is no answer to the needs and challenges of our African-American Catholics,” said Cardinal Hickey in his Washington Post article. “To do so is divisive and regressive.” Cardinal Hickey is right; what will the establishment of Imani bring?

The splitting of the Body of Christ, for one. “They are so worried about what thus says canon law, but I asked them what sayeth the Lord!” Stallings has declared. But the Lord gave the keys of Heaven to one man, he established one church, and warned about “division amongst yourselves.” The Catholic Church is one, inimitable body; there is not one for the white man, one for the black man, and so on.

Stallings has rent the Body of Christ in two, not only in organization but in liturgy. The Catholic Church only has one Mass, one Holy Eucharist. St. Paul said that there is “one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism.” The Mass is universal, ancient, and true; no one can improve upon it, and no one should try. By replacing Scripture with secular writers, by not adequately or not at all giving reverence to the saints and to the Blessed Virgin and other aspects of the Catholic

Church, Stallings is not only disrespectful but destructive. He has belittled the Mass and replaced it with his own. Anyone who is truly worried about what “sayeth the Lord” should stop this charade and rejoin the Church.

Wasted Talent

The destruction of the career of a promising priest is another result of the establishment of Imani. Father Stallings attended the North American College in Rome. He was made pastor of St. Teresa of Avila in 1976, only two years after he was ordained, although pastorship is usually granted 14 to 16 years after ordination. He nurtured the church and built the membership up from 200 to 2,000 parishioners. After pastoring St. Teresa for 12 years, he was made director of evangelism for the Washington archdiocese. This fast rise is a testament to his talents; yet he has always been a maverick, a loner, a man who wants to do his own thing.

Unfortunately, this can be a dangerous trait, and the establishment of Imani Temple is only one of the many manifestations of this trait which Stallings has displayed. It boggles the mind that one with so much potential would throw it all away.

But this has often been the story of those who, because of hubris, have lost their way. Stallings dances around the auditorium, saying “There ain’t no stoppin’ us now.” The man exudes pride; the air is heavy with self-importance. He delivers his homily with self-assurance and with precise, articulated phrases that suggest narcissism.

There is something else that this sad situation has wrought, and that is the state of the people who are following Stallings. They follow him for the fishes of fresh expression and the loaves of lost levity. Yet no substance is being presented to them, no truth is being given to edify their souls. They are sheep that have gone astray because of a wayward shepherd. Stallings is so caught up with himself that the spiritual health of the people seems to mean little to him. But this is nothing new. Throughout history, when men and angels have fallen from a state of grace, they have taken the weak, the unaware, the searching with them. That is the real tragedy of Imani Temple.

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